Falcons to host Saints in 2014 season opener

Falcons have just two prime-time games

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ offseason grit and toughness campaign will get tested early by the 2014 schedule, which was released by the NFL on Wednesday.

In a rematch of last season’s opener, the Falcons will face arch-rival New Orleans Saints to kick-off the regular-season at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Georgia Dome.

After facing the Saints, the Falcons travel to play against the rugged Cincinnati Bengals, who came to the team’s facility last training camp and put a physical whipping on the team, foreshadowing a tough year in the trenches in 2013.

After going 4-12 and finishing in last place in the NFC South, the Falcons only have two nationally televised games after appearing five times on national television last season.

The Falcons will host Tampa Bay at 8:25 p.m. Thursday night on CBS and play at Green Bay at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 8 at historic Lambeau Field on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

The league previously announced that the home game against Detroit will be played at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 26 at London’s Wembley Stadium.

“I believe (playing early) is a new thing for the NFL: Breakfast with the Falcons,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Everybody gets an opportunity eat breakfast. If they want to do their tailgating, they need to stay up all night.”

The Falcons have their bye week exactly at the halfway point of the season, after playing eight games.

The Falcons also dodged some potentially rough-weather games. They’ll play at Minnesota in the fourth game on the season on Sunday, Sept. 28. The Vikings are playing in University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium, while their stadium is under construction.

Potentially cold games at New York and Baltimore will be played on Sunday, Oct. 5 and Sunday, Oct. 19.

If the Falcons rebound and are in contention, the final quarter of the season appears rather daunting.

After facing Green Bay, the Falcons will host Pittsburgh, play at New Orleans and host Carolina, the defending NFC South champions, in the regular-season finale.

The Falcons opener against the Saints will be a heated rematch.

In a controversial game last season, the Saints beat the Falcons, 23-17 in the Superdome in coach Sean Payton’s return for his Bounty-Gate suspension. But the game will be remembered for a dropped touchdown pass by running back Steven Jackson and big hit that Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro put on quarterback Matt Ryan.

Over the offseason, owner Arthur Blank said he thought some of the Falcons should have rushed to Ryan’s defense. Blank wasn’t calling for a fight, but a shove in the chest would have acceptable.

That non-reaction led several national broadcasters to dub the Falcons as “soft.”

This offseason, the Falcons have been on a grit and toughness campaign. The front-office spent $80.5 million on offensive guard Jon Asamoah ($22.5 million), defensive tackle Paul Soliai ($33 million) and defensive end Tyson Jackson ($25 million) in free agency. General manager Thomas Dimitroff touted the grit and toughness they’d collectively bring to the team.

“Toughness is a word that has many, many definitions,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “You have to be mentally tough. You have to be physically tough. You have to resilient as a football player.”

The Falcons will also have a chance to add some more players to their offensive and defensive lines during the NFL draft, which is set for May 8-10.

“We need to have big, strong men because … the game is about controlling the line of scrimmage,” Smith said. “Yes, it’s a quarterback-driven league. Yes, it’s a passing league. But you still have to win the line of scrimmage. That’s something that’s going to be a major focal point for our football team as we prepare for the 2014 season.”